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A piece of the past

Historian and founder of Cuimhneamh an Chláir oral history group, Tomás MacConmara is working on a PhD documenting the Anglo-Irish War of Independence in Clare. He tells Carol Byrne how his first real brush with the War of Independence was unearthing a revolver as a child


Tomás MacConmara beside a Mick O’Dea painting of a Black and Tan at The Old Ground Hotel in Ennis. Photograph by John KellyTOMÁS MacConmara has been interested in old houses and old things since he was a child but his interest grew following one productive day when he was searching his neighbourhood for artefacts for his own little museum.

“Since I was a child, I’d that natural interest in history and in my heritage. I remember going into an old derelict house in my own townland of Ballymalone and finding a revolver buried in thick bushes. I brought it home and now I know the gun had to date from the War of Independence.

“I wouldn’t have realised at the time because I was only eight or nine. The gun was lost, unfortunately, but when I look back, that was what started my interest in the War of Independence. It really brought it home to me the local nature of the war and that the British Empire reached my townland in the top of the mountains in Tuamgraney and that conflict was fought there,” Tomás said.

His passion for history was also fostered through his connection to his closest neighbour, Jim McNamara, who died in 1997 aged 99, and who Tomás described as “the genesis of all of my motivation”.

“He was a representation of that older way of life. From the age of eight to 27, I would have been calling to Jim. He could transport me back to an older time like nobody else could. That instilled awareness in me that there were people like Jim in all parts of the country and that those people’s memories are so important to us, not just for historical information but because of the wisdom that they carry and what they can offer us as a society is the real motivating factor for me,” he said.

Having attained a degree in history and politics from the University of Limerick and a Higher Diploma in teaching history from NUI Galway, a PhD was the natural evolution of the research Tomás was doing. He grasped the opportunity to examine oral history as a way of studying the War of Independence.

Now in his second year of the PhD, entitled The Anglo-Irish War of Independence in County Clare Social Memory, Folklore and Oral History, he hopes to be one of the first to place social memory as a source for understanding it.

“I feel that historians have for too long focused on a top-down approach to our history, which leaves the experience of those who lived through it out and neglects the smaller actors in history. By utilising memory, we can put the so-called ordinary people back at the centre of our historical understanding and be enriched for it,” he said.

One of his research aims is to demonstrate how the use and gathering of social and oral history leads to a better understanding of the emotional sense of a period in history.

“Administrative and conventional sources have dominated historiography and it is only in the last 30 years or so that oral history’s inclusion has been seriously considered. We are still at a stage in terms of the Irish War of Independence where it still hasn’t been fully considered. Ultimately, you are dealing with a history experienced by people,” he explained.

His study also addresses the use of memory as a source and he believes the accuracy of sources, no matter whether written or oral, need to be verified in the same way.

“Just because somebody writes something down in 1922 doesn’t automatically mean it is accurate or truthful. The same rules should apply to all sources,” he said.

As Tomás began to get more deeply involved in the preservation of his heritage, it was through his recordings of older people in his locality that he began to hear aspects of the War of Independence and experiences of this period he hadn’t seen anywhere in the literature.

The first person he recorded was East Clare’s own Paddy Gleeson, who died in November 2010 aged 106.  Tomás was privileged to record his direct connection with the War of Independence.

“I started to realise there was a fairly sizeable gap in the narrative in the War of Independence, which to my mind could only be filled by the gathering of local memory associated with the period. I strongly believe that unless local narrative is included in the overall story, then it’s an incomplete narrative of our history,” he explained.

The two case studies he looks at in the PhD are the Scariff Martyrs and the Rineen Ambush. The former is personally significant to Tomás, being from Tuamgraney and as his grand-uncles attended the funeral.
Another East Clare person to feature in the thesis is the late Margaret Hoey, who gave Tomás an account of her connection with the Scariff Martyrs, four young men shot dead by the British Auxiliaries. Three, who were active members of the IRA, were known to Ms Hoey.

“That was a profound connection I hadn’t realised was as strong until I asked the question. she responded that she knew the men and remembered the day it happened in November 1920, when an IRA volunteer came to her door to tell her mother the incident had happened. Margaret herself was dispatched up a boreen to tell other IRA volunteers hiding in a safe house that the men had been killed. You could sense the emotion. That is the great thing about oral history, it allows you to get that emotional experience of the period that administrative or conventional sources don’t allow you to do,” he said.

Tomás has interviewed 140 people across the country with various connections to the War of Independence. He has been doing so since 2002/2003 and believes they need to be documented before the memories are lost.

“I’ve always felt, since I was very young, this duty or obligation to do that and I feel very strongly that if we don’t document those memories now, be they on theWar of Independence or life experience, we are going to lose something very important to ourselves that we can never bring back,” he said.

Tomás is still interested in speaking with people who have direct memories of the period, or anyone whose parents, aunts, uncles or other relatives were involved on any side who may have passed on stories and traditions about it. He expects to hand in the finished product by the end of next year.

Anyone who would like to get in touch can contact Tomás on 087 9160373 or visit www.clarememories.ie for more information about Cuimhneamh an Chláir.

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